In this 1967 drama that’s staged more like a documentary than fiction, a group of passengers traveling from one end of New York City to the other in the middle of the night find themselves trapped on a subway car with two unruly thugs determined to lay waste to the very notion of common decency.
The Production: 4/5
In director Larry Peerce’s 1967 film, a late night subway ride turns into a hellish nightmare for a group of weary passengers simply trying to find their way home. Each passenger or group of passengers is boarding the train not only from a different stop, but from a different walk in life. One couple is simply trying to get home with their small daughter and don’t want to pay for the luxury of cab fare. A pair of young soldiers are coming from a family dinner before they will head their separate ways. A young man is attempting to seduce an even younger woman at the end of their date. An out-of-work recovering alcoholic is looking to stay busy, and stay dry. A gay man still coming to terms with his own sexuality is seeking acceptance and companionship. An African-American couple is returning home from a fundraising event. An older Jewish couple worries about the state of the youth today. A middle-aged woman is upset that her husband shows less ambition than their contemporaries. With all of the passengers at the end of their day, and some at the end of their ropes, everyone merely wants to go home.
Everyone, that is, except for Joe Ferrone (Tony Musante) and Artie Connors (Martin Sheen). Joe and Artie are two young men with a wild streak; they could just as easily and accurately be called thugs or punks. First introduced in an opening sequence that’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying, we see Joe and Artie being thrown out of a pool hall at closing time. From the way they react to this, it’s immediately obvious that something isn’t right with these men. As they creep between the alleys of New York City, in a sequence that serves as a precursor to the droogs prowling London in A Clockwork Orange, the camera makes the audience an accomplice to their hyper displays of manic energy. (This is the first but far from the last time that director Peerce will do that in this film.) As they look for a victim to rob, presumably more for the thrill than the spoils, they’re cautious enough to avoid being caught. And as they begin to beat their captive, who was perfectly willing to give up his wallet without violence, it’s both hard to watch and impossible to look away. There’s nothing to do but watch and wonder what will happen next, except perhaps to hope that decency will somehow prevail.
When Joe and Artie board the train, the last people to do so, none of the other passengers are prepared for what will happen. The passengers have ridden enough trains to know to ignore the person climbing on the bars or making too much noise. They know the script and the etiquette: ignore the misbehavers, and they’ll lose interest and go away. But Joe and Artie aren’t like the usual punks looking to get a rise out of commuters, and these passengers are too wrapped up in their own individual dramas to recognize this. So when Joe and Artie start escalating from merely making too much noise and bouncing off the walls to attempting to light a sleeping homeless man’s feet on fire, the passengers are slow to react until one of them feels that the behavior must be challenged. But when Artie and Joe begin to ridicule and threaten that one challenger, the recovering alcoholic, he backs down when he realizes that he doesn’t have the support of the rest of the train.
As Artie and Joe continue on the train, they move down the row of passengers, exploiting each one’s weakness, alternatively turning on the charm or the terror, whichever they feel would be more effective for each target. No one person comes to the other’s aid, for it’s quickly established that the price for interfering is having Joe and Artie’s attention focused on the latest interruptor. Each passenger has their own justification for not helping their fellow passengers, and with no one standing up for anyone else, Joe and Artie are free to terrorize each person without fear of reprisal. It becomes difficult to watch as Joe and Artie move down the line, leaving each passenger in fear for their lives, everyone with their own convenient excuse for not jumping in. Each passenger holds the fantasy that if they merely ignore Joe and Artie and pretend that nothing is happening, that Joe and Artie will ignore them in return. Each passenger is disabused of that notion when their moment with Artie and Joe comes, and yet, they still sit in silence, not coming to the next person’s aid. Each passenger is able, in their own minds, to turn their fellow passenger into an “other” not worthy of being helped. Some are less surprising turns than others; for instance, it’s not hard to imagine a homeless person being an easy target. Then the gay man who is tortured by Joe and Artie is dismissed as a “queer,” as if that observation justifies the treatment he receives. When the young couple on the date have their turn to be picked on, particularly the young woman, it’s easy for the other passengers to simply judge that she shouldn’t have been out so late rather than offering assistance. One of the two soldiers is from out-of-town; because it’s not his city, he doesn’t feel an obligation to get involved. The other soldier is a local, but sees no reason to interfere. For the African American couple on the train, the husband notes that Joe and Artie are white and that the other passengers are white; he sees the different skin colors as a perfectly valid reason not to get involved. Everyone has a reason not to get involved; everyone becomes an accomplice.
The film hits harder than might be expected in a major studio title from 1967. There’s a good reason for that. The Incident began its life as an independent production, but when the producers ran out of money, Larry Peerce was able to draw interest from a young producer at Twentieth Century Fox, Richard Zanuck, who was looking to step out from his father’s shadow. Zanuck appreciated the storytelling style and the morally ambiguous nature of the passengers, and the fledgling production was saved by Fox. There’s a gritty realism to how the film is staged and shot. Though the filmmakers were denied permission to shoot on the actual city trains, the cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld did sneak some cameras through the subway system to capture some exterior and establishing shots that lend a tremendous amount of documentary realism to the proceedings. The production also acquired blueprints from the company that manufactured the original train cars, giving the replica set an uncanny sense of realism. And by keeping the camera confined within the train as if it were a real set, director Peerce makes the audience as much of an accomplice as the passengers themselves.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. As the two thugs, Musante and Sheen (in his screen debut) are enormously effective. Musante and Sheen are more than just fire and fury; they’re equal parts seduction and terror, allowing their victims to believe that they’re harmless just long enough to move in for the kill. Their performances are unforgettable. Beau Bridges shines as one of the two servicemen onboard the train; though he states that it’s not his problem as an out-of-towner, his eyes begin to tell a different story as the film progresses. Robert Fields is heartbreaking as the lonely gay man who is ultimately broken by Artie. Brock Peters and Ruby Dee make a significant contribution as the African American couple. And though director Peerce felt his casting was a little bit of a stunt, Ed McMahon hits the right notes as the husband and father who was too cheap to spring for a cab home and now rides in terror with his wife and child.
3D Rating: NA
The transfer on this Twilight Time disc is another outstanding offering from the Fox vault. The black and white film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio via the AVC codec. The photography is clean and crisp, styled somewhere between a noir and a documentary, with a pleasing layer of film grain that is never obtrusive but which helps with the illusion of realism. Detail is highly resolved, from the pores on the actors faces to the small print on the subway advertisements. There is not a hint of damage or age-related wear. The transfer is so good that the few rougher shots taken covertly in and around the real subway (where the filmmakers did not have permission to shoot) stand out from the more finely detailed studio and location photography. However, this is part of the original photography and not an issue with the transfer itself.
The mono audio is presented in the DTS-HD MA 2.0 format, though the packaging incorrectly notes it as being 1.0. Dialogue is well recorded and easy to discern. The sounds of the subway are convincingly recreated. The mix is well balanced, and really helps to sell the illusion that the actors are passengers on a train.
Optional English SDH subtitles are available on the disc.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentary with Director Larry Peerce and Film Historian Nick Redman – This newly recorded commentary track is an insightful listen that sheds light on the production itself and themes the film explores. Though Peerce is now 87, his recall of details from over fifty years ago is impressive. Redman is an engaging presence, bringing his own analysis and questions to the table, but never getting the way of Peerce’s recollections.
Isolated Music & Effects Track – Presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo. The film has two music credits: Terry Knight (Music Composed By) and Charles Fox (Music Scored And Conducted By). However, there is very minimalist usage of music throughout the film, covering perhaps less than ten minutes of the film’s running time and appearing mostly as incidental music in the first half of the picture before the passengers board the train. As a music track, there’s simply not much going on. However, the effects portion of the track does draw attention to how incredibly effective the film’s sound design is in selling the illusion that the actors are passengers stuck on a train.
Original Theatrical Trailer (01:55, SD) – The trailer is presented in 4×3 from a dated transfer which exhibits lots of interlacing artifacts and a fair bit of print damage. It demonstrates the difficulty that the studio had in marketing the film to a wide audience, resorting to a series of pull quotes from reviews juxtaposed with some brief cuts from the film’s more explosive moments.
Six Page Booklet – Author Julie Kirgo begins her essay by questioning why the film is not better known, before moving onto a more detailed examination of the production and the performances. Though some many disagree with her conclusions (Kirgo states that the film does not judge the passengers for their inaction; some viewers may feel otherwise), her insights into the film’s themes and analysis of the performances are well worth reading. The booklet also includes production stills and a reproduction of the original poster art.
The Incident is a lesser known title that is worth revisiting now, fifty years after its production. A morality tale that uses a nightmarish subway ride as a catalyst to examine the breakdown of society, The Incident is a film which takes no prisoners and offers no comfort for either its characters or its viewers. Its uncompromising look at not only the effects of actual violence, but also the effects of the threat of violence, may be difficult to watch but even more difficult to turn away from. This is a film designed to provoke an emotional response, and the filmmakers succeed by placing the audience in the shoes of its characters, almost daring the viewer to react differently than the fictional passengers do. With a brand new transfer that looks and sounds outstanding, along with a particularly good commentary, this Twilight Time release is well worth a look.
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